March 3, 2024

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Archie Shepp and Randy Brecker may seem like an odd couple at Middelheim Jazz Festival in Antwerp – A tribute to John Coltrane, Photos, Video

The politically radical free jazz legend Archie Shepp and the slick studio professional Randy Brecker may seem like an odd couple but at Sunday evening at Middelheim Jazz Festival in Antwerp they played together.

Archie Shepp started the concert by acknowledging Randy Brecker and his late brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, for once giving him the opportunity to play in their club in New York in the 1970s.

If there are any common ground between Shepp and Randy Brecker it is probably John Coltrane whose music they were at the festival to pay tribute to.

Different trane tracks

Shepp who is some ten years younger than Coltrane became his protegé and played on his album ”Ascension” and on alternate versions of Coltrane’s masterpiece ”A Love Supreme” which were issued much later than the original album. The two also shared the album ”New Thing At Newport” between them, and Shepp’s ”Four For Trane” was the first tribute album to Coltrane ever and recorded before Coltrane’s premature death at 40 years of age in 1967.

The music from ”Four For Trane” was the centerpiece at their concert but they also played some of Shepp’s music from the same time. On ”Four For Trane” Shepp wrote new arrangements for Coltrane’s songs from ”Giant Steps” where Coltrane played some of his technically advanced music ever with melodies and chord changes at incredible tempos.

If Randy and his brother Michael took something from Coltrane it was probably this technically advanced challenge to be able to play anything. Shepp probably took more of the emotional content from Coltrane’s music like the shrieks and cries which he produced on the saxophone and which seemed to speak of experiences of ecstasy and chaos.

Fire music

You can actually hear this when they solo after each other on Coltrane’s songs like the uptempo joyful ”Syeeda’s Song Flute” and the immortal ballad ”Naima” where Shepp is imprecise and rough in his solos while Brecker plays with a beautiful tone and a precise choise of notes which are always within the chord structure of the song.

They are backed by the rhythm section of pianist Carl Henri Morisset, bassist Reggie Washington and drummer Hamid Drake which are all much closer to Brecker’s style of playing than Shepp’s.

In addition to this music they also play some of the music from Shepp’s album ”Fire Music” from the mid 1960s. Shepp’s songs from that album like ”Hambone” and ”Los Olvidados” has stood the test of time very well and it is nice to hear the arrangements played by Brecker who of course not never misses a note or a beat.

Recycling the past

Singer Marion Rampale is added for the standard song ”My One And Only Love” which Coltrane recorded with singer Johnny Hartman. She also sings Shepp’s ”Blasé” and again the contrast between traditional romantic jazz and Shepp’s more radical version of it gets illuminated when lines like: ”And you appear in all your slender, my one and only love” collide with those of Shepp’s like: ”Blasé ain’t you big daddy, You who shot your sperm into me, but never set me free”.

Marian Rampal and Archie Shepp. Photo: Jazz Desk.

It is not the first time that Shepp performs this tribute to Coltrane. He has done it before at various jazz festival. Two years ago I heard him play it at The Vilette Jazz Festival in Paris. That time he had assembled a real supergroup of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Richard, and drummer Billy Hart to play it, and a French horn section. I was much more exited to hear this music that time, since it was the first time Shepp started playing it again, but I guess that the excitement at Middelheim Jazz is the same for those who have not heard it performed earlier.

It seems like every major jazz festival wants some legendary musician like McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp or Wayne Shorter to play at their festival. I can understand this. It is a chance for the audience to hear a musician which is a direct link to the by now mythic music of John Coltrane or Miles Davis. For me these musicians performances has seldom been one of the musical high points at the festivals I have been to, but still I attend them. I am just a sucker for jazz legends just like everyone else I guess.

Prelude to a kiss

Shepp seems to have figured out this need or longing for nostalgia as well, since he has concentrated on recreating his music from the 1960s and 1970s on the festival tour in recent years. Before the Coltrane tribute he recreated his ”Attica Blues” album from 1972. Among the musician he worked with then was drummer Don Moye and singer Cecile McLorin Salvante. Among the festivals he played that tribute was Middelheim Jazz three years ago.

Whatever you think of this recycling of the past it is a big part of the jazz industry and Shepp’s often very personal music is in my opinion worth revisiting and since few others do it he just as well can do it himself. He will not only limit himself to play his own music. Since the 1960s he always have played a lot of music by Duke Ellington, and he ends his Coltrane tribute with a song by Duke Ellington as well: ”Prelude To A Kiss”. He does not only play it on his saxophone, but he sings it as well. ~ Jazz Desk

Archie Shepp and Randy Brecker. Photo: Jazz Desk.

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